Man who admitted to killing transgender woman in Maryland gets 35 years

Rico Leblond, the man who last month admitted to killing a transgender woman in 2015, received a sentence Tuesday afternoon that amounts to 35 years in prison.

It was the maximum sentence prosecutors sought under last month’s plea deal.

Tuesday’s hearing ends a first-degree murder case that continued through two trials, as well as a Maryland Court of Appeals ruling that overturned Leblond’s conviction in the second trial.

Zella Ziona was killed in an alley behind Gaithersburg’s Lakeforest Mall in October 2015. The 21-year-old victim and Leblond had known each other since middle school.

Zella Ziona, 21, was killed in Montgomery County in October 2015. (Zella Ziona via Facebook)

Authorities had once believed Leblond was embarrassed when Ziona flirted with him, but they later said the motive was a gang turf dispute. The shooting, prosecutors said, followed an earlier altercation at the Lakeforest Transit Center.

Prosecutors said Leblond lured Ziona to the alley, where the victim supposedly believed a fight would continue.

During Tuesday’s sentencing hearing, Montgomery County Circuit Judge Debra Dwyer said she agreed with prosecutors that the killing was indeed premeditated.

“You were hiding in wait behind a dumpster,” Dwyer said to Leblond, now 25. ” … You withdrew your firearm and shot her right between her eyes, and I can’t think of a more premeditated act of violence.”

Evidence from earlier trials included surveillance video showing Leblond in the area before and after the shooting, and the discovery of Leblond’s DNA on clothing hidden at the crime scene.

Leblond’s first trial in January 2017 ended in a hung jury. Months later, during a second trial, he was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison. But an appeals court overturned the conviction, citing several errors.

Then the victim’s family requested a plea deal. Montgomery County State’s Attorney John McCarthy told WTOP last month that testifying “had taken an enormous emotional toll” on Ziona’s mother. Tyshika Smith found her child after the shooting.

Though she didn’t testify at Tuesday’s hearing, the victim’s father did. “Do I think that 35 years is enough? No. It will never be enough,” he said.

Defense attorney David Felsen requested a sentence of 25 years. He told the judge that Leblond had changed for the better in the last five years.

“I just want to be a better person,” Leblond himself told Dwyer later.

Though the judge acknowledged his difficult upbringing, she said the killing was “nothing short of an ambush.”

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